Republican lawmakers are pressing the Federal Communications Commission to crack down on consumer misuse of an internet subsidy program while Democrats want to see registrations rise.
The Affordable Connectivity Program was a major topic of partisan tension at a House Energy & Commerce subcommittee hearing on Thursday. CAF chair Jessica Rosenworcel (D, the agency’s other Democrat, and two Republican commissioners testified before the House panel for the first time since the start of the Biden administration.
The program, which offers low-income families a $30 reduction on their monthly internet bills, was instituted during the Covid-19 pandemic at a time when there was bipartisan agreement on the need to ensure connectivity for people working and going to school remotely.
Congress made the program permanent and funneled an additional $14.2 billion into the $3.2 billion fund through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Public Law 117- 58) adopted in November.
Now Republicans are sounding the alarm over fraud while Democrats are eager to lower barriers to registration and enroll millions more. About 11 million households have signed up for the program since March 28, according to data from Universal Service Administrative Co.
“The challenge for the FCC is twofold right now,” Rosenworcel said during the hearing. “First, we need to make it easier and simpler for those who need help to register while having appropriate safeguards against waste, fraud and abuse.”
In November, the FCC Inspector General found that households were fraudulently signing up for the government discount by falsely claiming they had children eligible for free or reduced-price meal programs. The report angered the committee’s top Republican, Brendan Carr, who reiterated his concern over “what appears to be a blatant, quasi-national ploy” during Thursday’s hearing.
Rosenworcel said the agency must continue to foster relationships with outreach partners at the local level to enroll more people in need. “We can preach about this program at the agency or from Washington, but what matters most is when people hear about it in their communities from people they trust,” she said. .
representing Marc Veasey (D-Texas) said he’s concerned families will be discouraged from signing up because the process can be confusing and time-consuming. Groups doing outreach work at the grassroots level said they could enroll people more effectively if they had dedicated outreach funding.
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks (D) said he wanted to continue to engage with authorities and families living in public housing in New York, where he said he witnessed a lack of internet access that has reinforced existing racial inequalities. Starks noted that a significant percentage of black and Latino households remain disconnected.
Republicans questioned the need for the subsidy given declines in the price of internet service.
“Americans Get More Broadband for Their Money,” Ranking Member of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee bob latte (R-Ohio) said, citing the FCC’s city pricing survey that shows a 34% price drop for some internet services since 2015.
Rosenworcel noted that the bipartisan Infrastructure Act directs the FCC to study pricing for people in the program. me,” she said.
Member of the Energy and Trade ranking Cathy McMorrisRodgers (R-Wash.) said the companies are already offering discounted services to low-income Americans.
“At a time when many people were losing their jobs and stuck at home, these bipartisan programs provided the relief needed to ensure they could stay connected during the pandemic,” she said. “Now we need to make sure these funds are not subject to waste, fraud and abuse and get Americans back to work and out of these COVID-era temporary government grant programs.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Mary Curi at [email protected]